This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Brad Burke of Rice University, Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, and Bart Womack of Eden Grow Systems. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Every Monday, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Brad Burke, associate vice president for industry at Rice University

Brad Burke has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures within Rice University's Office of Innovation. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Brad Burke, who has served as executive director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship for 20 years, has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures, the university announced this week. He will take on this new role within the Office of Innovation, as well as continue leading the Rice Alliance.

Rice's Office of Innovation, which was established in 2022 with the appointment of Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President for Innovation Paul Cherukuri, exists to support new and innovative initiatives and technologies from the Rice community with mentorship, funding, pilots, and more.

“The Rice Alliance has played a key role over the past two decades in building Rice’s reputation as a leading institution for innovation and entrepreneurship,” Cherukuri says in a news release. “We are thrilled to have Brad Burke join the Office of Innovation to support our faculty and students in commercializing their inventions.” Read more.

Denise Hamilton, author of "Indivisible: How to Forge Our Differences into a Stronger Future"

Houstonian Denise Hamilton is coming out with a book she hopes helps leaders reach beyond inclusivity. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

Denise Hamilton says she's been used to looking around and realizing she's the only woman or African American in the room, and for the past nine years, she's been providing resources and education to trailblazing women like her. Now, she wants to prepare current and future leaders on how to go beyond inclusivity and work toward indivisibility.

Hamilton's book, "Indivisible: How to Forge Our Differences into a Stronger Future," publishes February 6 from Countryman Press. She explains that the book comes from years of her on personal experiences, as well as inspiration from the women she's met with her company, WatchHerWork, multimedia digital platform providing advice and resources for professional women.

"I've learned a lot of lessons about what skills work, what behaviors are not intuitive, and built WatchHerWork with the intention of creating a space where people can get all of that advice — and juicy goodness — so that they can learn what they needed to do to be authentically successful," Hamilton says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"This led to me being brought in as a speaker, and ultimately has led to me becoming an author," she continues. "It's always shocking when people want to listen to what you want to say. It's unbelievable."Read more.

Bart Womack, CEO and founder of Eden Grow Systems

Houston-based Eden Grow Systems hopes to disrupt the agtech industry and revolutionize — and localize — produce. Photo courtesy

Whether it’s on Mars or at the kitchen table, entrepreneur Bart Womack wants to change what and how you eat. But the CEO and founder of next-generation farming startup Eden Grow Systems is seeking crowdfunders to help feed the venture. The company has launched a $1.24 million regulated crowdfunding campaign to raise the money it needs to scale and expand manufacturing outside the current location in Washington state.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force recently chose Eden as a food source for the U.S. Space Force base on remote Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, Womack tells InnovationMap. Another project with Space Center Houston is also in the works.

“We want to be the government and DOD contractor for these kind of next-generation farming systems,” he says.

The Houston-based company includes former NASA scientists, like recent hire Dr. L. Marshall Porterfield, of Purdue University, as an innovation adviser. Read more.

Houston-based Eden Grow Systems hopes to disrupt the agtech industry and revolutionize — and localize — produce. Photo via edengrowsystems.com

Houston startup with next-gen farming tech calls for crowdfunding as it plans to grow

seeing green

Whether it’s on Mars or at the kitchen table, entrepreneur Bart Womack wants to change what and how you eat.

But the CEO and founder of next-generation farming startup Eden Grow Systems is seeking crowdfunders to help feed the venture.

The company evokes images of a garden paradise on earth. But the idea behind the Houston-based NASA spinoff came from a more pragmatic view of the world. Womack’s company sells indoor food towers, self-contained, modular plant growth systems built on years of research by NASA scientists looking for the best way to feed astronauts in space.

The company has launched a $1.24 million regulated crowdfunding campaign to raise the money it needs to scale and expand manufacturing outside the current location in Washington state.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force recently chose Eden as a food source for the U.S. Space Force base on remote Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, Womack tells InnovationMap. Another project with Space Center Houston is also in the works.

“We want to be the government and DOD contractor for these kind of next-generation farming systems,” he says.

The Houston-based company includes former NASA scientists, like recent hire Dr. L. Marshall Porterfield, of Purdue University, as an innovation advisor.

Womack, a former digital marketer, Houston public channel show host, night club owner and entertainment entrepreneur, left those ventures in 2012, after the birth of his first child. While taking a year to study trends research, in 2014, what he read intrigued and alarmed him.

“I’ll never forget, I came across a report from Chase Manhattan Bank….of the top 10 disruptive investment sectors, over the next decade,” he says. “At the very top of the list was food.”

Bart Womack founded Eden Grow Systems in 2017. Photo courtesy

His conclusions on the fragility of the world’s food supply system, due to overpopulation, and scarcer land, led him to launch Eden in 2017, funded by venture capital firm SpaceFund, Womack, his family, friends and angel investors.

Womack believes “black swan” events will only increase, disrupting the food supply system and further jeopardizing food supplies.

“We’re going to enter a period of hyper novelty in history,” Womack says.. "The system we’ve built for the last 100 years, the super optimized system, is going to begin to break apart."

To avert a centralized food production outcome, operated by corporate giants like Amazon or Walmart, Womack’s vision offers a decentralized alternative, leaving it in local hands.

With $2 million put into the company so far and a half million-dollars in sales last year, Womack argues that Eden has achieved much and can make food independence within reach for everyday families.

The company commercialized NASA technology to fill what it viewed as “a huge gap within the controlled…agricultural space.”

The tower is the building block of a modular, automated and vertical indoor plant growth system, with calibrated misting, fans, and LED lighting, controlled by an app.

The company website touts the towers as an easy way to grow plants like lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes, with little water, no soil, and lots of air, without the expense and work of cultivating an earth-based garden.

For those who want to eat more than greens, the towers provide a way to breed fish and shrimp in an aquaponic version, recycling fish waste as plant fertilizer.

However, big plans come with big costs. The towers range in price from $5,000 to $7,000, although payment plans for those who qualify make it affordable.

Eden has sold around 100 of their towers so far, to a variety of customers. But rising costs and shipping delays have led to a a three-month backlog.

The manufacturing and shipping associated with larger installations means that even if the company made a million-dollar sale, delivery of the product would take a year.

“One of the hardest things…as a start-up, the last couple of years, is trying to narrow down exactly where the biggest payback is,” Womack says. “There is the lower hanging fruit, of small sales to individual buyers, but there’s the larger fruit of institutional buyers. But they can take months and years to convert into an actual buyer.”

Customers include several universities, including Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University, and talks are underway with other large academic institutions.

For now, attracting investors so the company can reach its funding goal poses the biggest challenge.

“Texas investors are very, very hard-nosed, and they’re not like West Coast investors. They want to understand exactly how they’re going to get their money back, and exactly how quickly,” he says.

Womack says the crowdfunding round would allow the company to expand manufacturing operations into Houston, deliver product faster, and invest in advertising.

“When we complete this round, and become completely self sufficient, we’re planning on moving to a $25 million valuation,” Womack says. “We can show, given money, we can scale the company.”

The city of Nassau Bay, next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, has purchased towers and plans to purchase more, not for the production of food, but to grow ornamental flowers.

Womack says that city officials there found that it’s cheaper to grow the decorative plants themselves, rather than buying them.

The towers are adaptable, and can grow not only food but cannabis and other plants, and if buyers want to use them other purposes, that adds to the product’s appeal, Womack says.

Eden has also sold some towers to Harris County Precinct 2 and the city of Houston, as part of a project he says will turn food deserts throughout the area into “food prosperity zones.”

“Our goal is to be the farming equivalent of Boeing,” Womack says.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.